Turkey, US on work to ease bilateral tension over detained consulate staff member

Turkey and the US are in discussions to try to resolve the spat over the arrest of a US consulate staffer in İstanbul, US Ambassador to Ankara John Bass said on Wednesday, adding that they are “still seeking an explanation” from Turkey for the detention of US mission staff.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has also said Ankara is looking forward to normalise US-Turkey ties while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu spoke on the phone with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the late afternoon on Wednesday for the first time since Washington and Ankara imposed visa sanctions against each other on Sunday.

Speaking at Turkish Diplomacy Correspondents Association, US Ambassador Bass has said that he hopes the two countries can quickly resolve the crisis triggered by the arrest of a US İstanbul Consulate staff member and leading to mutual suspension of visa services. Bass said the decision for visa suspension was taken by the US government, refuting Turkish autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s earlier remarks blaming him. The ambassador called the measure “saddening” and described the current crisis as “friction,” according to a report by Hurriyet Daily News.

“When a government takes concrete measures against our local staff and when that government does not provide any visibility about the reasons for doing so, when some people in that government choose essentially try the guilt or innocence of those people in the media, in the court of public opinion instead of in court of law, that raises concerns for our government,” he said.

However, Bass refrained from giving conditions necessary to lift the visa suspension, saying they would “rather keep diplomatic discussions away from public eye.”

“That’s a matter of discussions between the two governments. We can be sure that the Turkish government understands the rationale behind our decision, and we can better understand the rationale behind their decisions, and try to find a way back to regular visa operations,” he said. Discussions between the two sides have not yet revealed the evidence or reasons for charges against US consulate staff, Bass added.

“The US has yet to see from the Turkish government any evidence … that led to the arrest of a colleague and to enquiries about another one … The US government still has not received any official communications from the Turkish government about the reasons why our local employees have been detained or arrested,” Baas said.

“It is quite unusual for a government to detain and arrest employees of a diplomatic mission without discussion about the reason for doing so. I am not suggesting that our Turkish employees enjoy the legal protections of accredited diplomats. That’s not we are talking about here. We are talking about host government actions against the operations of the diplomatic mission holistically,” Bass stated.

Asked about remarks by President Erdoğan blaming Bass for prompting the dispute, the ambassador said the US “did not intend to disrupt a long-standing relationship with Turkey” and the two countries would continue to engage on the issue.

He also stressed that there is “no one hiding” at any US diplomatic facilities in Turkey, in response to media reports claiming that another consulate staff was being protected at the US İstanbul Consulate. “No one is hiding in any of our facilities. To the best of our knowledge there has also been no outstanding request for our local staff to come and talk to [prosecutors] or to appear for detention,” Bass added.

Two locally employed US consulate staff members in Turkey have been arrested this year. The second arrest at the US İstanbul Consulate, Metin Topuz, last week led to the US announcing on Sunday that it had stopped issuing non-immigrant visas in Turkey – a move reciprocated within hours by Ankara.

The detained consulate official Topuz was responsible for dealing with “the organized drug enforcement agency and was working closely with Turkish law enforcement officials to help them on crime networks and drug networks in Turkey,” Ambassador Baas said, emphasizing that this cooperation yielded some important prosecutions.

“We are not aware of other contacts that Topuz has had that exceeded his duties. If there is concrete evidence to that effect, we’d welcome it if we could determine whether he was engaged in things that he should not have been engaged in,” Bass added.

Meanwhile Turkish PM Yıldırım has said that “Our wish is that relations between the two allies get back to normal soon. We, as Turkey, will not give up on common sense at a time when regional and global tensions have been rising,” Yıldırım said, addressing governors in Ankara on Wednesday.

“As you may know the US has announced a suspension of visa services on grounds of security weakness at its diplomatic missions. Of course, we had done what is due for Turkey and responded doing the same based on reciprocity principle,” Yıldırım said.

Turkish FM Çavuşoğlu spoke on the phone with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the late afternoon on Wednesday for the first time since Washington and Ankara imposed visa sanctions against each other on Sunday.

No statement was made by either side about the content of the phone conversation, but it came after the two sides expressed the willingness to resolve the problem and avoid further deterioration of ties between the two longstanding NATO allies.

Ankara’s relations with Washington were strained after İstanbul Consulate General staff member Metin Topuz was arrested late on Oct. 4 on espionage charges and alleged links to some leading members of the Gülen movement, which is accused by the Turkish government of being behind a failed coup last year.

The US Embassy in Ankara on Sunday announced that it had suspended all non-immigrant visa services at its diplomatic missions in Turkey. Hours after the release of the statement, the Turkish Embassy in Washington announced that it had suspended all non-immigrant visa services at all Turkish diplomatic missions in the US.

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